Doing justice to education

As Ashland High School junior Dante Toppo watched a Marion County criminal mistreatment case unfold before the Oregon Supreme Court on the stage of the school's theater, he was struck by the dilemmas the justices faced in deciding gray areas of the law.

"I learned the extent to which the parsing of words and the discussion of the interpretation behind the words are used in legal cases," Dante said. "This case showed that there can be significant ambiguity in the text and application of the law."

The court's tour of the state this month has provided a unique educational experience for students and teachers at high schools and colleges, and that's exactly what the justices said they hoped for when they left their base in Salem.

The court went on circuit at North Medford and Ashland high schools Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

On Tuesday, the justices emerged in North Medford's auditorium clad in the school's choir robes bearing the Tornado mascot.

"It's really a marvelous opportunity and unique so far in my (31-year) career that we've been able to do something like this, from seeing them drive up in their SUVs to seeing the charm of the expressions on the justices' faces when they came out in choir robes," said Sean Warren, a North Medford advanced placement government teacher. "They looked like junior high kids who just got away with something." About eight North Medford classes sat in on the hearings Tuesday.

The court's first case came from Medford, a six-year dispute between the city and a citizens group over the city's interpretation of its own land development code when it gave Walmart permission to build a Supercenter in south Medford without doing a comprehensive traffic impact study.

In Ashland, the court heard a case out of Lane County in which it had to consider whether to uphold the conviction of a methamphetamine dealer for possession of meth that was found in his girlfriend's purse.

Next, the court considered a joint appeal by two Marion County parents who were convicted of criminal mistreatment of their children for environmental hazards in their home. One involved clutter deemed a fire hazard, while another was based on the presence of multiple choking hazards within reach of a baby and two toddlers.

Ashland students, who were given excused absences from classes Wednesday to watch the oral arguments, filled the high school's theater to capacity. Some government teachers later asked students to write essays about the court proceedings and issues the court considered. The majority of students Wednesday came to the oral arguments out of curiosity or interest.

After each case, the justices gave the audience 20 minutes to ask questions.

Ashland student Athena Johnston said she enjoyed listening to her classmates ask thought-provoking questions. She asked the justices how they came to be on the high court.

"I don't know," replied Justice W. Michael Gillette, who has been in law for 44 years and will retire this year. "None of us did things in our lives to be on the Supreme Court. You get to do this because you've done things that caused people to notice you.

"Working hard at whatever you are doing now is probably a good idea."

"It was great to have a peek at what actually happens," Athena said. "I like how factual they are. They don't bring in too many opinions. It's just by the law and what needs to be done."

Some advanced placement government students from North Medford and eight selected students from Ashland also had lunch with the justices.

"When we debriefed (Wednesday), the kids said the coolest thing was having lunch with the justices," Warren said. "They didn't talk about the court itself but about how they became lawyers and their career tracks. It was really rich conversation."

Paris Achen is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4459 or e-mail

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